Jet Race across the Pond

By Bob Allison

The First Scheduled Transatlantic Jet Services

Transatlantic passenger services were the pinnacle of European and American airline endeavour prior to World War II. A variety of craft were used, from airships to flying boats but conventional fixed wing aircraft were at something of a disadvantage. Aircraft big enough to be viable needed intermediate staging stops but none of those available had long enough runways. So flying boats were needed to fill the bill.

Pan Am's Juan Trippe had long held the vision of transoceanic air travel. He inaugurated flying boat services in the Caribbean and across the Pacific in the mid 30s with Sikorsky and Martin flying boats. Round about the same time, Imperial Airways had similar ideas for the Empire Air Routes with the Short Empire 'C' Class flying boats. Both, though, had their eyes on the Atlantic. Trippe persuaded Boeing to build a giant flying boat and placed orders for several of them in 1935.

Pan American Clipper Boeing 314 Airborne. Photo Boeing Aircraft/www.

Needless to say, the Short Empire boats, though big - grossing at over 20 tonnes - were only half the size of the Boeing 314. Though 20kt slower, the Boeing 314 carried almost twice as many passengers as the Short C class. Its range was also 1000 miles greater, a significant advantage.

Short Empire Class Flying Boat. Photo 02 Short

Pan American inaugurated the first scheduled transatlantic air service between New York and Lisbon, via the Azores, in 1939. Imperial Airways followed in August of the same year with their C Class boats via Ireland and Bermuda. This was luxury travel like no other. Fast, by the standards of the day but leisurely and graceful.

Interior of a Clipper Boeing 314 at mealtime

Pan American's Boeing 314 and Imperial Airways Empire or 'C' Class flying boats were something to behold. Unfortunately for Imperial Airways, Herr Hitler's shenanigans curtailed their operation after less than a month.

During the 1939 - 1945 conflict however, military necessity pioneered not only the aircraft but the routes as well. The post-war air transport companies got a flying start, so to speak. Aircraft development soon saw DC4s and the like give way to DC6s and DC7s, Boeing Stratocruisers, and Lockheed Constellations, All of which flew high and fast but often still lacked the range for a non-stop westbound leg. The average time was 14 or 15 hours in that direction with stops in the Azores or Newfoundland.

It had long been the dreams of BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation - now British Airways) bosses and Juan Trippe, to operate scheduled jet services across the Atlantic. To this end, Trippe persuaded Boeing to develop a four engine jet transport with this capability. Meanwhile, of course, BOAC had shrugged off the Comet 1 disasters of 1954 and ordered its new generation Comet 4. By 1958, the race was on.

Pan American, confident of their lead, erected billboards along the fences and at the entrance to Heathrow. Pan Am (their new image) First Scheduled Transatlantic Passenger Service, they declared in ever such big letters. Starting on the 26th October was the confident prediction. Well, they got the date right.

I was a young Air Traffic Control Assistant at the time. After spending August and September 1958 in the tower, October saw me re-assigned to the Southern Air Traffic Control Centre. In those days it was tucked into the northwest corner of the airport, alongside the A4. Affectionately known as The Black Hole of Calcutta, a large pre-fabricated building housed the procedural centre and its associated radar consoles. I must say, it was a bit galling to have to drive by Pan Am's hoardings on the way to work. The Yanks were going to be first again.

Imagine my surprise when on my fourth day at the centre BOAC launched their scheduled jet passenger service with simultaneous departures from Heathrow and Idlewild (now JFK). What a turn up. I will admit to a feeling of smug satisfaction driving past the Pan Am adverts, now being hurriedly modified by an army of poster painters. They left the date but had to paint out the first. Three weeks too late.

Comet 4 at Heathrow October 1958. Photo Ralf Manteufel/

Of course, the rivalry was fierce and a certain amount of sniping went on over the r/t. Sadly, beautiful as the Comet 4 was, it lacked the passenger capacity and speed of its American counterpart. On Sector 6 one evening, a BOAC Comet 4 inbound to Heathrow checked Strumble Head about 2 minutes ahead of a Pan Am 707. However, the 707 was going to reach Chepstow a minute ahead of the Comet. The conversation went something like this:

'London, good evening, Speedbird 001 Strumble at 06 FL450 estimating Chepstow at 21.'
'Speedbird 001, London, good evening, cleared green one to London FL450.'
'London, good evening, Clipper 1 was over Strumble at 08, FL350, estimating Chepstow at 20.'
'Clipper 1, London, good evening, cleared green one to London FL350.'
(A very plummy English voice) 'What are you doing down there?'
(A very laid-back American voice) 'Oh, about six hundred knots.'
There was no rejoinder but you could imagine the red cheeks.

Pan American Boeing 707. Photo

I think, though, the most amusing incident was in the first week or so of Pan Am's operation. They routed New York - London - Paris and returned the following day. On Sector 2 one morning, we were handed a Pan Am 707 at Abbeville, as customary. The 707 called in:

'London, Clipper 2 we checked Abbeville at 14 FL260 estimating Dover at 18 and we've lost our number two engine.'
We, of course were concerned and intrigued. A jet engine failure.
'Clipper 2, London, roger. We'll advise the tower for the emergency services. You are cleared inbound, radar vectors for the ILS runway 28 (it was 28 in those days) no delay, descend when ready FL 160, expect further descent shortly.'
'London, Clipper 2, roger, we'll advise you leaving FL260.'
'Clipper 2, London, advise POB and fuel remaining on landing. What exactly is the engine problem?'
'London, Clipper 2, we have 14 crew, no PAX and we'll have 14000 lb of fuel on landing. We've lost number 2 engine.'
'Clipper 2, London, copied. What exactly is the problem with number 2?'
In the most disgusted sounding voice you can imagine, Clipper 2 replied:
'It fell off!'

It turned out that since they had no PAX they decided to do a little crew training on the way to London. Having got the cabin crew to buckle up tightly, they proceeded to throw the aircraft around a bit. In the vicinity of Abbeville, number 2 engine detached itself from its pylon and dug a hole in a French farmer's field. His remarks on the incident are not recorded but were probably something like; 'Sacré bleu'. Or perhaps a little more colourful than bleu.

Eventually the Comets became uneconomical and BOAC had to buy Boeing 707s, then it was their turn to experience a bitter taste in the mouth.

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